I have always been a big fan of Kate Milford’s books, and so when I heard she had a new book coming out I very quickly knew I would want to write about it. Since I had already written a blog post on her other books, I decided that instead of a review, I could interview her about the book and her writing in general.
The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book was released February 23, and, unsurprisingly, it was very engaging and altogether wonderful. In it, strangers are trapped together at an inn, and as the blurb so eloquently puts it, “to pass the time, they begin to tell stories... that eventually reveal more about their own secrets than they intended.” Each story told in the tavern stands on its own, but an overarching story emerges from all of the tales, making the book feel like a short story collection where each short story indirectly contributes to the overarching one. It takes place in the 1930s, in the fictional city of Nagspeake, the same city in which Milford’s novel Greenglass House is set. In fact, in Greenglass House, the story’s main character Milo’s peaceful winter vacation comes abruptly to an end when unexpected guests start arriving at his parents’ inn. One of these strange guests has with her an old book which Milo ends up reading and the book even ends up driving some of Greenglass House’s plot. This book within a book is The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, which readers can finally read for themselves.
Below is a lightly edited version of my Q&A with the author Kate Milford.
Sita Welt: Why did you decide to write “The Hollow-Ware Man” [the tale told by Sangwin] in verse?
Kate Milford: It was actually one of the first stories I wrote for the book--I think the first three were "The Yankee Peddlers," "The Devil and the Scavenger," and then "The Hollow-ware Man." I wrote the first draft of it back in 2014, when I thought I would be self-publishing The Raconteur's Commonplace Book. I *think* my thinking at the time was that I wanted to write something that would be as haunting as the idea of this character was for me, and I love ominous old poems and ballads. Plus, since one of the things I wanted to do with Raconteur's was represent a wide variety of different types of folklore, it would've been a bit of an omission not to have included something like a poem or a ballad. (In my head, I imagine there's traditional music for it somewhere in Nagspeake.) But if I'm honest, I don't think I was thinking about all that exactly, when I first sat down to write the poem. It was something I thought about later--that I wanted riddles and trickster tales and some form of fortune-telling, etcetera, and how nice that I already had something in verse.
SW: Where did the idea of “old iron” come from? Why is old iron such a big part of your stories? [“Old iron” is a magical, self-aware iron in the books]
KM: I began writing about Nagspeake's self-aware ironmongery even before I had the first idea for a book set in the city. It was one of the earliest things I knew about Nagspeake. I actually don't know why I started in with the self-aware iron in the first place, except I've always loved the way ironwork can take damage over the years that makes it look like plants growing at odd angles--like you've caught a fence or a railing mid-motion, and it's frozen in place until you turn your back again. There really wasn't a reason for it to make an appearance in Greenglass House, so it didn't; however the iron is also why Nagspeake's locally-made glass has the green tint that gives the house its name--iron oxide can give glass a greenish hue. But it turns up in the other books set in the city, building to what we see in The Thief Knot and The Raconteur's Commonplace Book. Over time, it sort of became a character, in a sense.
SW: Where did names like Trigemine, Alphonsus, Pantin, etc., come from?
KM: Oh, I collect names from all sorts of places! I keep a notebook of names I like and words that I think might make interesting names. Old-fashioned words, obsolete words... right now there's a tab open on my browser with a list of like a hundred types of seaweeds that I've been using for names in a current project. Sometimes if I know something about a character, I'll pick a word or phrase that has a connection to them, then I'll look up synonyms, etymology, history, etc., until I find something that sounds like a possible moniker. And sometimes I invent patterns to help me find names, mostly as a game to amuse myself. When I wrote the first draft of the story about the Yankee Peddlers, I gave them all names that were to do with the body. Trigemine, also a peddler, got his name from a body part, the trigeminal nerve. Sangwin's name fits that pattern too, if you say it out loud. I didn't invent the 'Alphonsus,' but his last name (being a Yankee Peddler) is Lung. Pantin means puppet in French, though I had to look it up just now to remember. The Haypottens got their surname from the word hypotenuse. I love finding names. Coming up with all the names for the different types of fire in "The Reckoning" was some of the best fun I had while writing this book.
SW: I noticed that some of your stories seem to have a very eerie feel to them which gives them a very unique tone for a children’s book. Why did you decide to incorporate this into your writing and how did you manage that?
KM: It's just what I like, I guess! I'm a little like Mrs. Haypotten, trying to tell a cheery story to Maisie and seeing it go darker even as she tells it. Whenever I set out writing a story, it tends to go a little dark--or at least, a little weird, whether I intend it to or not. And I've been very lucky to have worked for many years with an editor who likes the kind of weirdness I like, and who's made every story better.
SW: When did you decide to make The Raconteurs Commonplace Book a novel of its own?
KM: I can confidently say it was at least as far back as 2014, but it might've been earlier. I had intended it to be the third of three self-published books, which began with The Kairos Mechanism and Bluecrowne. Then my editor at Clarion made an offer for it, and I'm so grateful, in part because I didn't really enjoy wearing all the different hats that are required to be a successful self-publisher, but more importantly because, as I mentioned, my editor, Lynne Polvino, makes every book I write better that it would've been without her.
SW: When writing this, did you base the stories around the characters or write the stories, then create characters to tell them?
KM: The answer is, a little bit of both. The three I had written in advance, I didn't have storytellers in mind for until I started drafting the whole book and started getting a sense of who the characters were and which ones might tell those stories and why. I gave "The Hollow-Ware Man" to Sangwin, and at about the same time I took a woodblock printing class, and after that Sangwin's connection to the poem became that he had illustrated an edition of it with woodcuts--which was helpful, because I think until then I wasn't sure why Sangwin would've told that specific one. With other stories, the story came about 100% because of who sat down to tell it--Mrs. Haypotten's and Maisie's tales come to mind. I really had no idea where those were going until they were done. "The Ferryman" took its particular shape because I wanted to have a story with riddles (that was the let's-have-lots-of-kinds-of-folklore thing again). It also made a difference--not to get spoilery--but it made a difference how much of a clue the story in question contained, relating to the bigger mystery. So they kind of all came about in different ways.
SW: Why did you decide to set the book in a setting nearly identical to that of Greenglass House but in the time period of Bluecrowne and The Left-Handed Fate?
KM: Well, I knew it had to take place in the same town--we know from Georgie when she gives the book to Milo that this is a classic collection of Nagspeake folklore. And if it's a classic in Milo's era, it has to have existed for some time before the events of Greenglass House--in fact, between the adventures of Lucy and Liao Bluecrowne in 1810-1812 (because Lucy and Liao make an appearance in the book) and the adventures of Milo and Meddy in roughly the present day. I initially couldn't decide if I wanted to have it be around the 1880's or around the 1920s; I wound up setting it in the 1930s and as I sit here I'm trying to remember what the calculus to that decision was, and I honestly can't recall! It probably had to do with something like when the kind of music boxes Mrs. Haypotten collects became widely available. Oh, and I think it also had to do with the length of time that had passed since certain events in certain of the characters' pasts--but I can't go into that because it would be a spoiler. I could've set it in the late 1800's and it would *just* have still worked, but the timeline would've been cramped.
SW: Why did you decide to make each of your books a standalone, but still very much connected to all the other books?
KM: In some cases it's just how the stories work out--The Raconteur's Commonplace Book necessarily has to be a standalone to some degree, because it exists within the world of the other books. There's also the simple, practical reason that standalones are what my publisher is the most comfortable with. And sometimes, once I've spent some time with a character, even if they're secondary or even much smaller characters in their original stories, I start thinking about where else they might have turned up, what other adventures they might be part of. For instance, I fell so much in love with the characters in The Thief Knot that I started getting ideas about different follow-up stories in which each of the kid detectives gets to be the protagonist. I have a few other projects due before I can start thinking about those tales, though!
SW: Are any of your characters based on real people?
KM: None in The Raconteur's Commonplace Book, but yes, off the top of my head there are two who are based on real people: Brandon Levi, the conductor of the Belowground Transit System is based on a very real Brandon Levi, who was my Thai boxing instructor--which is how the version of Brandon in Greenglass House, Ghosts of Greenglass House, and The Thief Knot wound up being a fighter. Also, the Major Bierce from The Broken Lands is the real-life author Ambrose Bierce
SW: How long do you spend researching before you finish a book?
KM: That really depends--depends on what the book is about, depends on how long I have to write it. For Raconteur's, I spent a good four years thinking about it and making notes about ideas I was having, but I didn't really know at that stage what I'd need to spend time really digging into in terms of actual research. On the other hand, The Left-Handed Fate took a couple years of pretty intensive research where I really wasn't doing much else. (Most of the time I'm working on more than one book at a time, so I'm often researching more than one book.) So every book is different that way. But I do love researching. I tend to hoard books, and when I start getting interested in a particular subject I start collecting books on that subject. In the case of all that research I did for The Left-Handed Fate, thanks to all that hoarding I already had books on the War of 1812, seafaring, and General Boat Stuff, so when I started writing my current project, which is about privateers and which I'm writing with adventure cartoonist Lucy Bellwood, I already had a whole library of relevant books.
SW: What made you decide to write children’s books?
KM: Originally, I was between writing projects (I was mostly writing plays at that stage) and had hit a kind of slump where I didn't feel like I had any ideas I wanted to be working on. My mom had a middle-grade project she hadn't finished, and I got a vague sort of idea I wanted to mess around with. I found a contest with a deadline in about 3 weeks, and I suggested Mom finish her book and I'd try and write one (I'm usually really good with deadlines) and we both worked really hard to finish our stuff to enter that contest. We both succeeded! Neither of us won the contest, but I came out of it with the first draft of what would become The Boneshaker, my first book.
SW: Do you share your characters’ interests (Natalie’s interest in automata, Lucy’s interest in the sea)?
KM: Oh, definitely! Half the joy of writing these books is building stories out of stuff I like, and that'll be fun to research. Of course, the difficulty is that then I want to run out and buy a bunch of books about whatever that interesting thing is. And I do not have good restraint. You should see my office. It's an absolute wreck--mostly because of all the books!
Editor's Note: Thanks so much to Sita for taking the initiative to reach out to one of her favorite authors for an interview, and thank you to Kate Milford for graciously participating!